Byakuya: Most people would be excited to come of age. Then again, most people weren't the crown prince of Nigotta, for which they should probably be thanking whatever gods they have. Each day that I survived brought me one step closer to the throne. Each day I survive also put every single person around me in terrible danger. The Kōketsuna Prince was a prime target for assassination, since many nobles were still determined to fight amongst themselves for the crown, and that put anyone that I came into contact with and anyone that I cared about at risk. I'd already lost Hisana and at least five aids to these attempts on my life. I was almost afraid of what my eighteenth birthday would mean to those who wanted me dead. Would they just give up, since my parents were on their way out anyway? Or would it become a catalyst for more serious and deadly attacks that would only cease when I took the throne? Or would they ever stop? I didn't like having to deal with such uncertainties when it came to my own life, or the lives of those around me. "Your highness?" I looked over at my personal aid, who was bowing deeply just inside the doorway. "Yes?" He rose at my acknowledgement. Honestly, if I had decided to simply ignored him, Renji would have stayed in that deep bow until I acknowledged him –even if it was a week later. Well, he would until he fell over. "I was wondering…" he started. He halted abruptly to close the door behind him. When he turned around again, his serious expression turned into a wide grin. "I was wondering if it would be possible for you to… escape your gilded birdcage to celebrate your birthday in Kakoku instead of in the palace." Ah, so it wasn't official business. I allowed a small smile to pull at my lips. Renji Abarai had been with me all of my life. He was actually a very energetic and entertaining man, as long as it wasn't "royal business". He had been the closest thing I really had to a friend when I was very young, if I were to be completely honest, and he was especially dear to me since he had been close to my late wife. He smiled back at me. "I have prepared a gift for you, your highness, that you should enjoy. If you can get away from your duties, that is." I thought about it. My ever-frivolous parents were throwing yet another celebration to mark my birthday –a particularly huge ball since it was to mark my coming of age. I figured that if I danced with the queen and my sister once each, I should be able to escape relatively unnoticed and unscathed. Well, unless the queen had decided to invite all of the marriageable females in the kingdom again. I tried not to shutter at the notion. She hadn't done that since I'd married Hisana, and it would take more effort than she wanted to expend on the child she preferred to ignore, anyway. However, the fact that Renji had prepared me a present intrigued me more. Renji frequently accused me of being the man who had every possession imaginable, and he declared that my birthdays just seemed to add more 'everything'. "What sort of gift have you prepared?" I asked him, unable to stem my own curiosity. His russet eyes took on a dark gleam. "I believe you will totally and thoroughly enjoy it," he declared. I wasn't sure how much I should trust that gleam in his eyes, but I did know that I could always trust the confidence and certainty that had rung out in his voice. Slowly, I gave him a nod of acquiesce. "I should be able to get away. I believe you are allowed to celebrate my birthday with me," I returned wryly, almost playfully. A grin nearly split his face. "I do hope so, since I've been doing so for nearly eighteen years now," he replied.